DOLLHOUSE HISTORY 101 | The First Dollhouses in Europe, Part 2

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As we follow the history of the dollhouse as it crosses from the 16th to 17th century, we also find it leaving Germany and moving across Europe. While Germany may have claim to the first dollhouses, the Netherlands and England would also find the charm of miniature houses and take it to new levels.

Unlike their German counterparts, the Dutch dollhouses make no attempt at making their exteriors resemble that of a real house. Rather, these miniatures rooms were displayed in finely made cabinets, that when closed would blend into the room. Only when opened would the viewer be delighted to find an entire tiny household. Hence, these houses are often referred to as “cabinet houses”. They primarily belonged to the wealthy, merchant class women of the Netherlands for whom it was a hobby along with the collection of other fine art including porcelain and silver. Indeed, many of these cabinet houses include a miniature room to display miniature porcelain and silver collections that mimic how the full size ones would have been displayed.

One of the oldest existing Dutch cabinet houses is the Utretch House which dates between 1674 and 1690. The house was created by Petronella de la Court in Amsterdam. Its eleven rooms include an art room, a kitchen, a nursery, an office, and even a garden. It contains over 1600 unique miniatures, even the cabinets and drawers are filled with various papers, mementos, and everyday household objects. The house passed through several owners including a gentleman of French descent in 1738, which may account for some of the French additions such as miniature portraits of Louis XIV and Cardinal Marazin. In 1831, the house suffered from a burglary–a chandelier, silver fire irons, a tortoise-shell inlaid cabinet, an amber chest decorated with gold and ivory, and a chest of silver spoons were all stolen. The owner at the time replaced the stolen items. The cabinet is now in the collection of the Centraal Museum in Utretch.

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The Cabinet House of Petronella de la Court. Photos used under Creative Commons license.

The Netherlands are also home to one of the more intriguing dollhouse legends, that of a dollhouse meant for Peter the Great, Tsar of Russia. The legend goes that while touring the Netherlands, Peter saw one of the cabinet houses and wanted one for himself. The house was commissioned but when it was ready, the Tsar refused delivery because of its high price. Whether there is any truth to the legend remains to be seen, but the house often ascribed to it is one that belonged to a Petronella Oortman. Indeed, this house was so impressive that it was recreated in a painting shortly after being built. Both the original house and the painting of it are in the collection of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.

Two very interesting Dutch houses belonged to Sara Ploos Van Amstel (nee Rothé). The wife of a wealthy merchant, Sara was a meticulous record keeper and thanks to her, the creation of both houses can be traced with reasonable certainty. The first cabinet was built by craftsman Jan Meijjer in 1745. To furnish it, Sara gutted three other cabinet houses in her possession, including two that belonged to the artist David van der Plaes whose paintings reside in the house’s collector’s room. The rooms include a courtyard complete with mosaic floor, a kitchen, a music room, a vestibule, a lying-in room, a porcelain room, the collector’s room, and a nursery.  These last two rooms are of particular interest because they are placed at the top of the cabinet, which has a curved top. Sara incorporated this curve into the design of these room, rather than provide a false ceiling. The cabinet may also contain the precursor to the first miniature of a miniature. In the lying-in room, the linen cabinet is an exact replica of the cabinet in which it is housed. Later, the Bespaq company would produce a similar cabinet for modern day collectors to create their own 144th scale cabinet house. Her first house is currently part of the collection of the Gemeente Museum Den Haag.

Like many modern miniaturists, Sara soon found that her cabinet house was not enough to contain her entire collection and created a second house. This second house contained twelve rooms including a kitchen, a well-stocked storeroom, an elaborate dinning room, a salon with a silver collection, a doctor’s study, two bedrooms, a lying-in room, and a laundry room. The house also has unusual feature in its display–a ratchet that can be used to raise the house, making it easier to view rooms on the lowest level. And unlike many other cabinet houses, this house has double facade. The outside doors are cabinet doors, but inner doors create the facade of a house complete with windows. The house is currently part of the collection of the Frans Hal Museum in Haarlem.

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Sara Ploos van Amstel’s second house. Photograph courtesy Frans Hals Museum, Haarlem. ©Margareta Svensson (photographer).

In England, the dollhouse would take a decidedly different turn than its Dutch counterparts. English dollhouses or “baby houses” often had very detailed facades that mimicked their real life counterparts remarkably well. These house were often designed by the same architects who designed full size houses, hence the attention to detail. Also, while the baby house remained largely in the realm of adult collectors, these houses were often gifted to young girls as well.

The oldest known dollhouse in England was indeed intended for a young girl, Ann Sharp, the daughter of the Archbishop of York. The house was a present from her godmother, Queen Anne. Because of its earlier date, sometime after Anne’s birth in 1691, it is a cabinet like the Dutch counterparts produced around the same time. The house has nine rooms including a kitchen, a drawing room, a nursery, and a curious attic space to house extra pieces. Perhaps the most charming thing about the house are the dolls, to whom Ann pinned small handwritten tags. The tags identify the dolls such as “Sarah Gill, ye child’s maid”, “Roger, ye butler”, and  “Lady Jemima Johnson”. There is even a young girl doll thought to represent young Ann herself. The house currently resides in a private collection.

Moving ahead only a few decades, there is the grand baby house belonging to Sarah Lethieuller, gifted to her by her father in 1730.  The house features a grand facade in the Palladian style complete with columns, large square windows, and fanciful figures along the roof line. It sits on a base designed to resemble the arcade of the Covent Garden piazza. Sarah was so fond of the house, that when she married Sir Matthew Fetherstonhaugh in 1747, she brought the house with her to her new home at Uppark, where it remains to this day. The estate is now in the hands of the National Trust and is open to visitors who can view the dollhouse.

Another grand house from the period is the Tate baby house. Built in 1760, the history of its ownership is a bit murky. Its last owner was Mrs. Walter Tate and thus it is known by such. The house is currently part of the collection at the Victoria & Albert Museum of Childhood. The house itself mimics the detail of brickwork and is impressive with its two grand staircases at the entrance. While the original house was modeled after an 18th century Dorset house, the smaller version has had several renovations including additions to the roof, changing the windows from Georgian panels to Victorian style sash windows, and the furnishings in the house date to the 1830s. This house can actually be disassembled so that it can be moved easier, perhaps indicating that it traveled with its original owner.

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The Tate Baby house. Photograph courtesy of the Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Perceptions about the dollhouse will begin to change in the 19th century as it goes from the the realm of the adult collector to an icon of the childhood nursery which we will explore in our next article.

Click here to read Part 1.

A special thanks to the Frans Hal Museum and the Victoria & Albert Museum of Childhood for their help and use of their photos. The picture of the Petronella de la Court’s cabinet house is by Typezero and used under a Creative Commons License.

101S is a LEARN Section series of articles teaching you everything you need to know about a mini subject.

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